“Her open and honest treatment of female sexuality, free from any sense of guilt, infused her writing with power, but also marked her as an iconoclast in her generation,” says the Wikipedia page of late Malayalam and English author Kamala Das or Kamala Surayya — writer, feminist and non-conformist — whom Google honoured with a Doodle by artist Manjit Thapp on Thursday, providing “a window into the world of an engrossing woman”.
This, a day after a petition was filed in the Kerala High Court against Malayalam film Aami based on her life, arguing it sends out a message of “love jihad”. Das converted to Islam when she was in her 60s. “It’s a whole load of rubbish. If you do anything about Kamala Das, 50 channels pick it up. So obviously, it’s for free publicity. They interpret whatever they want. If at all there is anyone who can interpret her life, it’s her immediate family. In my opinion, those filing these cases are fanning communal violence,” says her son Jayasurya Das, who lives in Pune and now manages the copyright to her work.
Her conversion to Islam during the later part of her life had always been a matter of controversy. “She always did whatever she wanted to do in her life. There is no one in the world who could have convinced her to do something she didn’t want to. She was a creative genius, she had a mind of her own and as her family, we supported her, irrespectively,” adds Jayasurya, who recalls how his mother told him over the phone about her conversion to Islam after the deed was done.
Novelist, poet and columnist, Das, who wrote in Malayalam under the pen name Madhavikutty, was known for her bold, defiant style of writing, touching on women’s issues like sexuality in an era when it was unheard of. She wrote her poetry in English under her own name. Credited with several pieces of brilliant work, such as The Kept Woman and Other Stories, Summer in Calcutta, The Descendants, the most well-known of these and most controversial was her autobiographical book, Ente Katha (My Story).
Ask Jayasurya what it was like growing up — her outspokenness, her bold work, criticism and even having to live under state protection for a while — and he says he enjoyed it. “All her friends were our friends, ours was a completely open house. None of these things came as shocking to us. I was the youngest and tagged her along all the time and I completely enjoyed the attention. As for the bold writing, we knew it was part fiction, she could weave a story around anything,” he recalls.
Even today, to find women writers who write with her boldness is rare. Jayasurya puts it down to several factors.
“Today, if I ask you, name three fearless women writers, it is going to take you a while. My mother was fearless. During the Emergency, she openly spoke against the government and had to be moved to Kerala under protection. Not everyone has the guts to write so openly and then stand by it.
There are husbands and families to consider. You’re branded and stereotyped as one with loose morals. I mean if we believed the kind of stuff written about her, she was sleeping with a different man every night. But it was sheer nonsense. She was gutsy and that is rare,” he adds.
The winner of several awards, Das, who wrote about love and longing most emphatically, was the only Indian woman author to have been nominated for a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1984. On February 1, when even Google honoured her memory with a Doodle, her family expressed their disappointment. “We are thrilled about what Google did. But it’s so unfortunate that the only woman to get a Nobel nomination didn’t even get a Padma.”